Will Britain return to Europe?

 In ICPT, In Focus, News

This week – the most tumultuous week in Britain’s political history arguably since Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990 – the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, Sir Keir Starmer expressed the view that if the Labour Party won power, Britain would not rejoin the European Union customs union or single market.

It was an opinion echoed by one of Portugal’s most respected former government ministers, Augusto Santos Silva, who served as Minister of Defence (2009-2011), and more recently, Minister of Foreign Affairs (2015-2019).

Now he is the leader of the Portuguese Parliament – the equivalent of the Speaker of the House of Commons in the UK, but without the shouts of ‘Order!’ ‘Order!’ (Thankfully for him, since he is a soft-spoken and measured man not given to shouting)

The key note speaker at a luncheon organised by the International Club of Portugal (ICPT) on Wednesday (July 6), when he spoke about ‘Portugal and the Future of European Institutions’, Santos Silva expressed the opinion: “Knowing British society, I do not believe in such a drastic ‘U-turn’ on a decision that was freely taken by the (British) electorate to leave the Union”.

As we witnessed the dying days of the Boris Johnson government, who resigned yesterday (Thursday, July 7), there have been those in the UK who think that it could re-join the EU.

Indeed, many people — mostly with businesses — who voted to leave in the momentous referendum six years ago on 23 June, 2016, now regret it.

They realise that trade with our largest single trading partner ( the EU) is in a bureaucratic shambles, so much so it as contributed to us now being the new ‘sick man in Europe’, lagging only behind (and heavens forbid)!, Russia.

That the promise the National Health Service would receive £350 million a week (£18.2Bn per annum), one of the reasons for leaving, was a lie, and on top of that we now face the very real prospect of Scotland leaving the union if a second referendum goes ahead, not because of anything going on politically or economically there, but rather because Scotland knows Britain’s economy is in on a handcart to hell, and the Conservative political establishment has become a joke.

All eyes now look to Boris Johnson’s successor at Nº10, some have suggested the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a Remainer and that he could start edging Britain inexorably towards a closer relationship with the EU. Others suggest the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace to take the helm at Britain’s Conservative party, also a Remainer.

The move could allow the UK to consider rejoining the EU single market and customs union, as well as renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and eventually – although less likely – rejoin the EU within a decade.

However, according to the Statista Department the polls suggest that as of June 20202, 50% of people in the UK think that it was wrong to leave the EU, and 36 per cent (lower than in 2016) now think it was the right decision.

Right now, the share of people who regret Brexit is slightly higher than those who support it, while the share of people who don’t know whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision has generally been consistent and has usually ranged between 11% and 14%.

But in another poll in June commissioned by the newspaper Express (a conservative middle-England publication) when the sample to its readers was asked “Is it only a matter of time until Britain rejoins the EU?”, 86% (6,262 people voted ‘no’.

A European Political Community?

The President of Portugal’s Parliament says that a proposal from France’s President Emmanuel Macron to create a ‘European political community’ could be an open window for Britain’s rapprochement with the EU. In other words, Britain would still be on the naughty step, but like a badly behaved school pupil would be brought back into class. The question is, on what terms? Dropping opposition to unilaterally breaking the Northern Ireland protocol?

Macron’s political community was not to replace EU policies and instruments, he said. Rather it would establish regular meetings on key topics “to stabilise the European continent,” Macron said on a recent Moldova trip. It would include countries other than Ukraine wanting to join the EU such as Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan states. It would also seek to welcome Switzerland and Norway, and perhaps, as Santos Silva suggests, the UK.

The former Portuguese foreign minister does point out that a “European Political Community, in whichever form it would take, would not exactly be the European Union”.

The background to this French suggestion now, of course, is the inevitably slow and no doubt agonising process of Ukraine joining the EU. This, of course, works on the premise that a) Ukraine will win the war, or come to a settlement with Russia (in which case it would probably lose more than 20% of its territory); b) That the EU and Western World sets up a kind Marshall Plan to rebuild the shattered country at an estimated cost of US$ 1 trillion. (with no guarantee that Russia wouldn’t wade in and again destroy it)

In any case, Russia, knowing the world will eventually abandon fossil fuels, and having failed spectacularly at diversifying its economy since the 1990s, wants Ukraine for the grain. It did in 1921, and again in 1932-1933 when it was prepared to starve the people to get it. It’s always all about the money and this, I suspect, is Russia’s real “existential threat”.

And even if the EU were to fast-track Ukraine into EU membership and rebuild its wrecked economy, where is the money going to come from after Europe has signed up to the biggest public investment (read debt) of an equally astonishing amount of €1 trillion? How is Ukraine going to pay the EU and the Western world back?

Talk of getting the Russians to foot the bill will hardly work, and in any case smacks too much of the Versailles Treaty and look how that turned out. (And we are not even at war with Russia)

Macron – an honest broker?

And then there is another problem here. Macron, increasingly unpopular in France, is trying to create a legacy to cover up failures at home, only unlike President Putin, without invading any countries. He failed to be the peace-broker between Moscow, Ukraine and the EU despite several pointless trips to Moscow in the vain hope he would return with an assurance about as useful as Neville Chamberlain’s in 1938. Now he is trying a new tack to make him look good for French audiences. Old trick. Boris Johnson did similar, except he visited Ukraine, and with some short-term success.

Macron has couched the political community as a broad but lean decision-making structure for political dialogue and cooperation on matters of common interest to European nations — both ones in the EU and outside it, and would only be for countries which share the EU’s “democratic values”. That would, presumably be a tall order for Hungary then which increasingly seems to sit on the fence between Russia and the EU.

Some MEPs suggest that the EU Commission should suspend 100% of EU funds to Hungary (€6Bn) a year. It comes after the European Commission in April launched a rule of law probe against Hungary. The probe was triggered after intense pressure from the European Parliament and the commission will next have to determine the infractions that are held against Hungary. After all, it cannot have its cake and eat it with all the benefits and cherry-pick the rules, which of course, is what the UK also wanted on migration.

When I asked him about the travesty of Hungary’s behaviour on certain democratic freedoms and its attitude to migrants as an EU member he gave a kind of “answer answerless” on what measures the EU should take, in the tradition of Elizabeth I of England when badgered by the Commons and Clergy alike to marry. But then, he can’t really express an opinion in his current role.

He did say: “Hungary is making a kind of discovery, a discovery” that since the war in Ukraine migrants are “not necessarily economic migrants”, but fleeing from war. Santos Silva also pointed out that migrants were not necessarily “a threat to our civilisational order” but Hungary had to be given some space to “take its own path” and that “takes time”.

The leader of Portugal’s parliament also added that some countries which had seen the West as a threat, today have more awareness that the threat lies “not in some specific part of the world, like Russia or even Moscow”, but rather comes from “those who are occupying positions of power” in the Kremlin.

Reworking Europe’s institutional architecture

Augusto Santos Silva did suggest that any Eastwards enlargement of the European Union would require “Europe’s institutional architecture to be rationally reworked. “We can’t think about such an enlargement without rethinking the engineering of our union, namely at a financial and budgetary level”, he said, no doubt aware of the huge cost burden on net contributor countries like France and Germany, and to a lesser extent Portugal which would have to pay more.

And as to the question of Britain’s rapprochement with the EU, Santos Silva says: “This possibility has potential (…) a European political community could create a space in which a some kind of return of the United Kingdom to the EU space could be easily done”.

Personally, I don’t see the point of a political community without an economic one, and unless the EU gives way on the question of the Northern Ireland/Eire border down the Irish Sea, I can’t see how this can realistically happen unless both sides redraw their red lines. In any case, we already have the G7 and NATO.

Text: Chris Graeme Photo: Joaquim Morgado